Design Ethnography: What We're Taking Into The Field

Ever wondered what design ethnographers are carrying around during field work? Following a recent trip to the midwest, we did a visual autopsy on one of our bags to answer that question.

Before we divulge the inventory (the bag weighed 22lbs when we checked), it's worth noting that for the majority of ethnographic projects, we're often in the field for 6-12 hours a day. We move from location to location, conducting 2-4 interviews daily and talking with folks for up to 2-3 hours at a time. Between interviews we're driving, making calls, camping out at coffee shops, uploading data, recharging batteries and fine-tuning the approach to ensure our clients are achieving their goals.

For us, ethnography is a practice that demands a high level of energy, diligence, empathy, curiosity, creativity and a good sense of humor.

Oh, and everything in this bag, too! All of the items below are in the bag shown above and we've broken them out by category for this visual autopsy.

1. AudiO & imagery

We are transmitting audio via Sennheiser lav mic systems and recording on Zoom H1 recorders. The Zoom mics have a handy auto-level feature that captures the quieter moments. We always bring a second set of lavs/mics for those moments where someone else shows up unexpectedly and has fantastic content to share.

Our digital SLR is a Sony NEX-6, and we love it for its low profile. It doesn't take up much space and fits easily into a jacket pocket.

2. Video

We capture specific close-up video vignettes with the Sony NEX-6, but for reference video we use our GoPros. They're incredibly agile with accessories; we can capture just about every angle. A GoPro is also great for first person point-of-view captures.

For documentary-style footage, the gear we use requires four additional bags so they're not going to fit here! That equipment will be covered in another upcoming post.

3. CONTENT

At the heart of the content we generate is the discussion guide. We prepare it prior to the field work in collaboration with our clients. It's loaded with the questions, activities and proprietary tools that help us generate meaningful insight.

Confidentiality agreements and business cards are standard fare, but chocolates from our local chocolatier in Exeter are a treat that always get us started off on the right foot.

4. Production

We are most efficient in the field when we can shift into production between interviews. We need to review audio, upload content and check in remotely with project stakeholders, make notations.

To accomplish this, we take along our mobile office: a laptop, cell phone and notebook.

5. Utility

The gear that keeps the rest of our gear up and running: chargers, cables, batteries and more. When we're in the field for up to 12 hours, all of this backup power becomes invaluable.

Also worth noting here is a backup 1 terabyte drive. Very handy if the laptop or SD cards start to fill up. Even more so if a client riding along wants immediate access to some of the content because we can hand over the drive.

6. Self

Hydration and fuel are the highest priority in this category. Very, very important to maintaining that high level of energy we mentioned earlier. 

This particular category also changes with the seasons as things like chapstick, tissues and other personal care items become key to surviving full days in the field.

7. Just In Case

As the saying goes, anything can and does happen. Being able to improvise on-the-fly with Post-its or tape in conjunction with tools in the discussion guide is a valuable skill.

And we try to look out for our clients, making sure we've got the little things covered with Band-Aids, stain erasers and extra fuel to get them through the day.